The advertising industry is often criticised for peddling wildly unrealistic consumerist fantasies to the poor. By and large, this complaint strikes me as hypocritical bullshit. We’ve all sat next to someone in a hip cafe, dressed in the latest fashions, wanking on about the emptiness of consumerism over a skinny soy macchiato. But I have to say, in India the advertising industry really lives up to its reputation. One huge campaign at the moment features India’s biggest star, multimillionaire Amitabh Bachchan, in an immaculately tailored suit. He’s strolling down a spotless marble hallway to catch a jet to Milan. The grimy billboards portraying this are poised above gutters overflowing with dirt and litter, or over rivers so choked with plastic you can’t see the banks through it anymore, and so full of fermenting raw sewage that the water effervesces, emitting an almost overwhelmingly putrid stench. Meanwhile, filthy and emaciated children with rotten teeth and matted hair weave through traffic begging for 1 rupee (2.5 US cents), often horrifically disfigured by their own families to increase their earnings.
Being the tireless defender of the proletariat that I am, I decided to strike a blow against this evil. How? By whoring myself out to the lowest bidder for a bit part in a TV commercial, that’s how. Er, taking the system down from the inside. No wait … experiencing exploitation for myself. Stop looking at me like that. You’re putting me off my macchiato.
By agreeing to take 500 rupees for a day’s work (about U$1 an hour), I secured a role as an extra on a TV commercial for a new chocolate bar. Believe it or not, this is a common wage for fresh-off-the-boat goras in Bollywood. The pitch is to wander up to likely-looking backpackers and say “Want to be a Bollywood actor?” Most people, like me, find this idea so amusing they’re willing to do it for a pittance, which is exactly what they get. There is so little concern with acting ability in Bollywood, especially for white characters, that they’re happy to drag pretty much anyone off the street. And with such a rich supply of foreigners passing through, what you get is downwards pressure on wages. 500 rupees will barely cover the cost of the shittiest hotel room in town, and I mean shitty literally. The toilet in mine leaks when you flush it.
The longer-term goras like Harry have developed a delightful lingo for this situation, adopting terms from the porn industry: fluffer, stuntcock and pornstar. The most prestigious category, pornstar, is self-explanatory. Fluffers, the least prestigious, keep the pornstars erect between takes and never appear on screen. In the middle rank are the stuntcocks, who take over if the pornstars can’t keep it up. So they appear on screen, but only in close-ups of their nether regions, so it’s hardly acting.
Now these labels lend themselves readily to Bollywood: extras are fluffers. They never appear recognizably onscreen, and they get paid a pittance. Non-speaking characters, who interact in some way with the main characters, are stuntcocks. They don’t get paid much more than fluffers. Goras with speaking roles, playing named characters, are pornstars, and get paid more again. So I would have been a pornstar if “The Flag” had been finished, but since it fell through I was reduced to being a fluffer in a TV commercial. I was initially disappointed by this drastic drop in pay and status, but little did I know how much more fascinating this work would be…
The production company being too tight to rent a real studio, the ad was shot in an abandoned factory, the Colaba Mukesh Mills. Apparently, this enormous textile factory was destroyed in a fire. It then sat idle, slowly falling into ruins, until cheap film production companies started sneaking in illegally to shoot there. Eventually, the owners wised up slightly and started charging rent, and now it’s a standard Bollywood location. There are rumours that the owners have since wised up slightly further, and are planning to sell the place.
That an enormous piece of prime waterside real estate could lie abandoned in the center of India’s wealthiest city, earning peppercorn rental from shonky filmmakers, would be bizarre enough in itself. But actually visiting the place took things to an entirely different level.The Mukesh Mills proved to be one of the most astounding, gorgeous and surreal places I’ve ever been.
Giant holes gape through rusty corrugated irons roofs; moss and grass sprout from piles of rubble where walls used to be; strangler figs sprout from rooftops and send their roots down the decaying remnants of drainpipes. The centrepiece of the factory, a giant smokestack, has a tree poking out the top. It’s as if a suburb of post-WWII Berlin has been dumped in the tropics, and is gradually being consumed by the jungle.
Scurrying through all of this decay are dozens of highly-trained technicians, operating expensive pieces of high technology and stepping gingerly over thick high-voltage power cables.
And it’s not just in the financial and visual aspects that the place has gone through the looking glass. Real film studios are anonymous by design; large, featureless spaces with electricity and lighting rigs. Within them, sets or bluescreens allow shooting in a controlled environment, where natural light or weather can’t interrupt. The Mukesh Mills are a truly bizarre inversion of this: a breathtaking outdoor location, with no mains electricity or even shelter, and all of this carefully concealed from the cameras by shoddy sets, in this case a generic subway station, which could have been filmed anywhere. Only in India.
My ad features an Indian couple waiting for a train. They eat some chocolate, which is so good it sends them off into reveries; the man daydreams about sexy white women making chocolate, the woman about sexy white men doing the same (white people have a surprisingly complex role as sex objects here). I was on set for the shooting of the woman’s fantasy. Five impressively buff Brazilian men were playing sexy cowboys mixing chocolate. The language barriers were hilarious. Music would play, camera would roll, and the director would be yelling “sexy!” or “macho!” or whatever, to which the Brazilians would give a bemused shrug. So he’d ask the crew how to say it in Portuguese, and the crew would yell back in Hindi, presumably saying “no idea!”
I was in the subway scene, walking anonymously past the actors like a true fluffer. My call-time was 2 pm, but when I arrived they hadn’t even started building the set yet. By dinner time, a couple of the other extras, blonde German girls, were so pissed off by the waiting they left. You might think this would be a problem, but the production team just sent a minion off to the nearby backpacker haunts of Colaba. He returned with a pair of replacement blondes about half an hour later, Dutch this time. Goddamn fluffers. We didn’t actually start shooting my bit until about 1.30 am.
The little photos above don’t do justice to the place. You can check out the full versions here (Click on ‘slideshow’):
Next thrilling instalment, Harry pulls some strings and engineers my return to pornstar status, playing the only thing even more evil than a British soldier. Stay tuned to find out what that is – same crap time, same crap channel.
Postscript, May 2008: You can now see the ad here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpU9wwflmNs
My legs and torso appear momentarily around the three-second mark, walking in from the left. Dagnammit, I thought I was supposed to get 15 seconds of fame. Now you know what a fluffer is.